If It Prove Fair Weather, by Isabel Paterson

May 17th, 2009

I had mixed feelings as I started If It Prove Fair Weather: I looked forward to reading another novel by Paterson and regretted that after this, there would be no more–at least, no more except for her lesser historical novels. If there’s one writer I’ve come to feel, since starting this site, whose work has been most unjustly forgotten, it’s Paterson.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'If It Prove Fair Weather'Paterson’s three novels published between 1933 and 1940–Never Ask the End, The Golden Vanity, and If It Prove Fair Weather–are marked with an intelligence, humor, and keen sense of feminism that would seem to be a natural fit for many readers today. She writes with a distinctive voice–ironic, self-deprecating, wistful yet pragmatic. Her heroines are women who’ve never defined themselves based on whether there was a man in their lives, even though each has a romantic streak and an attraction to the company of men. These are women who enjoy having a man hold her hand, and yet wonder at men’s utter cluelessness.

If It Prove Fair Weather presents just such a woman, Emmy Cruger, an associate professor of mathematics at a Manhattan college, in her mid-forties, single, happy to own her own apartment: “… the only refuge she had ever owned. Once she was inside, nothing could get at her until tomorrow.”

Out of nowhere, James Wishart, a publishing executive Emmy has known for years, approaches her at a cocktail party and asks her to dinner. Despite the fact that Wishart is very married and very conservative, she has sensed some mutual interest for years. Now, however, he seems to want to take things further.

Or does he? Even in the privacy of Emmy’s apartment, something holds him back. They kiss and embrace, but then he leaves in haste, concerned not to be seen returning to his hotel too late. There are several rounds like this, each stopping short of Emmy’s bedroom.

Emmy deconstructs each encounter with her friend Christine Jackson, trying to understand Wishart’s motivation and intent. The problem, as Emmy see it, is that Wishart is so bound up in convention he himself has no idea. She compares him to a medieval burgher in some painting by Breughel: “The medieval face was squarish, cautious, set; it connoted the land-bound man, who kept within limits, by mark and custom, on the traveled roads, whatever their turns and windings. He feared death and the judgment, comets and portents and plagues; he walled himself in and accumulated things of substance….”
“He’s got himself so surrounded by precautions that it leaves him completely exposed,” Emmy concludes.

These would-be lovers are separated by oceans: marriage, convention, inexperience, and, above all, sex. Wishart is a terrible kisser: “When he kissed her mouth, she thought, he doesn’t know how. Like a child….” Women are an utter mystery to him. “Is there any difference–between one woman and another?,” he straight-facedly asks Emmy at one point–a question she chooses to ignore. He has no idea of how to play the game of love: “… [Y]ou didn’t think of me again till yesterday?,” Emmy asks him one evening together.

“Sometimes,” he said. “I thought about your knees. They bothered me a good deal.”
My knees, Emmy thought, blankly astonished. How can any woman understand a man either? … Women don’t think like that. Never. I thought about–I thought about him.

Wishart is such a stranger to himself he doesn’t even know he’s ticklish. In a friendly tussle one evening, Emmy reaches around and sets off a fit of giggling. Wishart is dumbfounded at his reaction. To herself, Emmy wonders what this says about the emotional and physical coldness of Wishart’s marriage.

The trouble is, after half a dozen evenings together, this is still where things stand. Then, as if to signal just how lost he is, Wishart mails Emmy a clipping about himself from a trade journal, along with a note saying nothing more than, “Sincerely, JNW.” “Why did he take the trouble to write and say nothing?,” she wonders.

Slowly, the truth dawns on her. Wishart wants to have an affair–but he wants her to make the first move. He takes it for granted that she is the more experienced party in such things: “He wants me to. An excuse. To make him do what he wants…. No chance.”

She gives up on Wishart and moves on. Huntley, another married executive–trucking this time–shows an interest. Unlike Wishart, however, he has no hesitation. Their second evening ends with them in bed, Huntley exultant and Emmy mildly amused. She appreciates the contrast and feels a certain physical attraction, but no more. After a few months the affair fizzles out in mutual disinterest.

Wishart appears one more time, to say, in his own clumsy way, that there can never be anything more between them. His wife is suffering from cancer. The perfect moral way out–or at least so Emmy recognizes Wishart’s own view of the situation. This last demonstration of emotional ignorance and cowardice seals the deal, in Emmy’s eyes.

Still, even as she happily parts from this clod, she also mourns the loss of the inexplicable bond she and Wishart felt in some way from their very first meeting. There was, and always could be, some undeniable spark, some attraction that existed on a completely different level from anything she felt with Huntley. Some “… happiness they had no power to resist while they were together, because it consisted simply in being together….”

This affair that ends without ever really taking place would be a pretty thin foundation for any novel, and were it not for the pleasure of seeing it all through the eyes and voice of Emmy–which really means the eyes and voice of Isabel Paterson. It’s a little unfortunate that Stephen Cox’s 2004 biography, The Woman and the Dynamo, has led to a minor rediscovery of Paterson as a libertarian icon, since it leaves her far more substantial literary merit in the shadows.

Paterson was one of the funniest and smartest writers of the 20th century. Employed for several decades as the principle book reviewer of the New York Herald Tribune, Paterson was among the best and most widely read people of her time. The novel’s title comes from an old poem by Sir John Suckling, “The Constant Lover”, in which the poet admits at the end that,

Had it any been but she,
And that very face,
There had been at least ere this
A dozen dozen in her place.

As with Never Ask the End and The Golden Vanity, Paterson riddles If It Prove Fair Weather with snatches of poetry, folk song, and stories that reveal with incredible richness of her reading. I took the time to track down every quote in the book, and this sample from the first 100 pages gives a good indication of how intricately interwoven literature high and low must have been with her own thoughts:

  • “The Corruptible”, a poem by Elinor Wylie (an acquaintance and contemporary of Paterson’s)
  • “To a Woman Young and Old”, a poem by John Keats
  • “Memoirs of the Jukes Family”, a humorous piece by Will Cuppy, one of Paterson’s closest friends, that appeared in The New Yorker in 1931
  • A variation on “Peter Bell”, a poem by William Wordsworth, that appeared in works by Shelley and Charles Lamb
  • A story about Ninon de l’Enclos that appeared in the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon
  • “I’ll go no more a’roving”, an English sea shanty
  • “Ulysses”, a poem by Alfred Tennyson
  • “To a Lady Asking Foolish Questions”, a poem by Ernest Dowson
  • A deathbed quote from the Emperor Hadrian, as adapted by Elinor Wylie

Further on, we encounter bits from Browning, T. S. Eliot, Kipling, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Yeats, Tin Pan Alley, Cocteau, Sappho, and King Harald of the Danes. What is most impressive is that Paterson had to have been working purely from memory–almost every other quote proves to have a word or two wrong or omits a line, just as they would if recalled from years of reading.

She is also a writer who drops in wisecracks and aphorisms as easily as punctuation. Here are just a few from among the many pages I dog-eared:

  • Fame means that one-tenth of one per cent of your fellow citizens have heard your name; not that they care.
  • By the time we know what to do with time there is no more.
  • Friendship exists, complete and absolute from the beginning. You don’t make friends, you recognize them.
  • The fact that other people have their separate being and may continue to exist without us, appears as a kind of treason.
  • Perhaps no man listens to any woman. He understands only that she is amiable or out of humor, as if it were fair or stormy weather.

And, sadly for Emmy Cruger, her true love proves not to understand even this much.

I closed If It Prove Fair Weather with mixed feelings like those I started it with. It was a genuine treat to share Isabel Paterson’s company for 300-some pages, and it was sad to know there would be no more new Paterson novels after this. And it was frustrating to realize that it will soon be seventy years since this book was in print.

Won’t someone PLEASE do America a favor and republish this wonderful woman’s work?


Find a copy


If It Prove Fair Weather, by Isabel Paterson
New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940

One Response to “If It Prove Fair Weather, by Isabel Paterson”

  1. Brooks Peters Says:

    What a marvelous “precis” of a book and author unknown to me. A strong recommendation to read it. You do a great job Brad of describing its pleasures. Will check my loco library. :)

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